Pride and Joy

Understanding your child's emotions and solving family problems

How to Have Better Conversations With Your Children

How to engage children in dialogue—with less defensiveness and less argument.

“How was school today?” “Good.”

“What did you do?” “Stuff.”

Why don’t children want to talk with us about their bad feelings?  Why are they so often defensive and uncommunicative, unwilling even to report mundane events of the day?

Why do they so often tell us, when we clearly know otherwise, that “everything is fine?”  Why do young children put their fingers in their ears, or shout over us, ignore our questions, or say to us, ”I’m not going to tell you.”  Why do they so often refuse to listen to what we have to say?

In today’s post, I would like to share some lessons, gleaned from my experience as a child therapist, about how we can engage children and adolescents in dialogue, how we can listen—and help them listen to us—with less defensiveness and less argument. 

Most often, your child’s silence is an instinctive self-protective behavior, evoked by the anticipation of painful feelings. Children do not want to talk to us when they feel angry or ashamed; or when they are afraid that we will be critical; or when they believe that talking will just make them feel bad all over again, or feel worse. If we would just leave him alone, he believes, his bad feelings will go away.

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Even when there is nothing really wrong, when we ask a child a question, he may hear more than our question. He hears the overtones, the implications, of our questions. He may suspect that many of our neutral questions are not really neutral (for example, when we ask about his day at school) and he may wonder, why are you asking me about this?

What can we do?

Here are some recommendations that have been helpful to many parents in developing more open communication with their children.

Express enthusiastic interest in your child’s interests, even if these are not the interests you would choose. This is the surest way to engage children in dialogue, and a first principle of strengthening family relationships.

Acknowledge their frustrations, disappointments, and grievances. In therapy, when a child is sullen and uncommunicative, if I ask her to tell me about what is unfair in her life, she will almost always open up. As parents, we can say to our children, “I know you feel it wasn’t fair when…” Or, “I know you were really disappointed when….” Or, “I know you were really frustrated and angry when…”

At these moments, we are doing much more than helping children talk with us about their feelings. We are also helping them learn that disappointments, in themselves and in others, are part of life, and that feelings of anger and unfairness do not last forever. (I will discuss the importance of these moments—for our relationships with our children and for their emotional health—in a future post.) 

Share personal stories. Talk with your children about experiences in your own lives, especially at times of sadness, anxiety, and disappointment. Let them know that you know how they feel, because you have also had these feelings.

When there is a recurring problem in your family life, enlist your child in problem solving. Ask her for her ideas. You can say, for example, “A lot of times, we have a problem in the morning, when it’s time to get ready for school. What do you think we can do about this?”  

Most children, especially if we begin with some appreciation of their feelings and concerns, participate enthusiastically in this process, and many parents are pleasantly surprised by the reasonableness of the solutions their children offer.

Acknowledge your mistakes. If we are willing to acknowledge our mistakes, our children will be more likely to own up to theirs. We should say, for example, “I know I was very angry at you earlier. Maybe I got too angry.” 

When you need to criticize, criticize thoughtfully and gently. When talking with your child about a problem, tell her what is right about what she is saying before you tell her what is wrong. 

Set aside 10 minutes, every evening at bedtime, as a time to talk—a time to listen to your child’s concerns and share stories. If she says that she has nothing to talk about, tell her about something that happened in your day, perhaps a moment of excitement or frustration, or a moment of humor. Ask her about something she is looking forward to, or worried about, the next day

Children look forward to these moments, just as they do opportunities for play. Often, when parents set aside this time to listen and talk with their children, they report immediate improvement in their child’s mood and behavior.  

Give them time. When talking about any problem, it is important to give your child time. Try not, at that moment, to insist on a response. This may be especially important for boys, who often need more time to let go of their reflexive defensiveness. You can say, for example, “OK, I understand how you feel. Let’s talk about this again tomorrow and see if we can come up with any new ideas.”

Finally, be careful how you talk about others. If you are frequently judgmental of others, your children may become anxious that you will also be critical and judgmental of them.

A child’s reluctance to talk with us is a common problem for both parents and child therapists, and remains our persistent nemesis. However, if we are patient and tolerant of their mistakes; if we acknowledge what they feel is unfair in their lives; if we talk about our own disappointments and frustrations; and, especially, if we express enthusiastic interest in their interests and concerns, even sullen and withdrawn children will open up.

Over time, we can then help them learn that, although it is not always easy, talking about bad feelings is a normal and helpful thing to do.

Kenneth Barish, Ph.D., is Clinical Associate Professor of Psychology at Weill Medical College, Cornell University.

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